“Gambling is the sure way of getting nothing for something,” quipped Wilson Mizner. A few lottery winners would disagree, but he’s often right. He surely was in the case of the 2018 Blue Jays. They rolled the dice about four times over the past winter when it comes to that “Bringer of Rain”, Josh Donaldson, and went a remarkably unlucky 0-for-4. A lot of snake eyes! They could have let him go in the off-season, or better yet, traded him off when teams were calling (St. Louis in particular we fans are told) and probably parlayed him into a couple of good solid prospects… and not gone to arbitration with him and ended up saddled with a $23 million debt to #20. That wasn’t in the cards however.
First off, they gambled that the ’18 Jays would be competitive. That they’d at least have a chance at hitting the Wild Card spot and if they did that, who knows where it could lead? Well, at this end back in spring, I thought that might be a bit optimistic and they needed more in the way of starting pitching, but there was at least a slim chance they could be correct. Now, almost half-way through the season, we see that’s just not going to happen. Like last year, the Blue Jays are battling for third and running below .500. Unlike last year, both the Red Sox and Yankees are on unbelievable tears, with the two best records in baseball. Throw in another good year from the Astros and a surprisingly solid campaign from Seattle and you have Toronto sitting something like 10.5 games out of the final Wild card spot. Conservatively, the blue-and-white would need to win 55 of their last 85 games to even have a chance; more likely this year 57 or 58 would be necessary to get them in. A tall order for a team which hasn’t managed to put together more than 4 wins in a row in half a year. With more games to look forward to against the Orioles than Red Sox, a .500 finish is within reach. A playoff berth- sorry, that train left the station weeks ago.
Second, they bet that Josh Donaldson was going to be a big part of a post-season bound team. He was going to be MVP, Version 2.0. Maybe not a terrible guess at the time. His superb MVP year was just back in 2015; he was better for much of 2016 but slumped in September, and finished red-hot last year after an injury-marred first half. And he is, after all, only 32, far from Over-the-Bartolo-Colon-hill in most people’s estimation. Needless to say, they missed the mark here as well. Donaldson’s been out all of June on his second DL stint this year, this time with a “calf strain” that is still limiting him to light “less than full speed running” almost four weeks in, according to the team. He might get back in the lineup at or just after the All Star game. So far, he’s been limited to just 36 games in 2018, and only 26 of those have been at the hot corner.
When he has played, it’s not been very inspiring. He’s hitting all of .234 with 5 homers and 16 RBI and a rather weak .423 slugging percentage. If he continues like that, he’ll post the lowest numbers in almost every parameter (such as average, on base, slugging, and highest percentage of at bats resulting in strikeouts) since his 2012 year when he first broke into Oakland’s lineup on a semi-regular basis. Of all the AL Third Basemen on the All Star Ballot, Donaldson really only outshines the Orioles Tim Beckham. Beckham is hitting an anemic .179 with a stunningly-poor .509 OPS- but hasn’t played since mid-April due to a groin injury. (He was activated off the DL this weekend mind you.) Every other 3B-man on the list has more than Donaldson’s 16 measly RBIs and most are well above his average. And although the numbers suggest his fielding has been a bit better than last year’s (better fielding percentage, only 2 throwing errors), his lack of arm strength and accuracy is starting to be commented upon widely in the American sports media. Previously, the high average and moon-shot homers seemed to make them oblivious to the fact that he just isn’t a good third base arm.
They decided to roll the bones once more, wagering about $23 million. They bet that Toronto fans would continue to turn out in record numbers to see the team. And that they might be miffed at the departure of Jose Bautista and thus would need a “Superstar” for them to hitch their wagons to. Or at least buy the imitation jerseys of. The dice flew right off the table on that one. Toronto leads the Majors in the dubious category of drop in attendance this season. Now, it is worth noting the Jays are still drawing an average of 29 000 per game at the Rogers’ Centre, which is actually 5th best in the AL. But it’s nowhere near the Yankees average of 42 300 per game, or close to the NL’s Cardinals who sell, on average, 95% of all tickets available. Nor is it near last year when they led the world in turnstile ticks and drew around 40 000 per game. We’ve touched on the subject here earlier this year, but the point to note is that Jays fans seem disgruntled at having a so-so, or worse, team for a second straight year and the presence of JD in the lineup isn’t bringing butts to the seats (there’s no discernible spike in attendance when he’s been playing) thus making his salary all the more disconcerting.
Last they went to the Blackjack table to wager that they didn’t have to win the first bet, ultimately. They were convinced of Assumption #2 so they assumed that if something went awry and the Jays were, say 10+ games out of a Wild card spot come Canada Day, that Donaldson would be so mightily impressive that they could easily auction him off to an array of desperate teams. Exit Donaldson, enter the next Vlad Guerrero Jr and Roy Halladays, they figured. Well, the “house” is just laughing at that one it is so far off the mark.Instead of an Ace and a King they drew the joker and a Grim Reaper from a Tarot deck. What we have instead is a limited number of teams in contention, most of whom already have solid third basemen anyhow. It’s hard to imagine many teams will be looking to upgrade at that position this July, since they are (like Toronto) already done for the year or (like Houston or the Cubbies) feeling quite blessed with their talent there.
There might be a couple of teams looking – I personally think Boston will still look to upgrade over newbie Rafael Devers and surprisingly, it’s rumored Cleveland’s in the market. That’s a real surprise as they have arguably the best 3B in the league already- Jose Ramirez. The thought is that Ramirez could swing over to second and replace fading Jason Kipnis if they got another big bat to take over at third. It’s also said St. Louis is interested, although their situation is precarious at 40-36, three teams out of a playoff position. One feels that being on the losing end of a series sweep before the Mid Summer Classic might well turn them from potential buyers into wholesale sellers. If not though, they’re said to like Donaldson’s demeanor and might perhaps look to get him. But that’s only if he can get himself back on the field and generate a few runs soon. And, I’d guess, only if Toronto pick up a chunk of the $12M or so they owe him before year’s end. Toronto could offer up hope to potential suitors by reminding them that last year Josh also sucked in the first half and got hot in the second. Last year he’d also missed over 40 games in the first half due to injury and was hitting only .261 with 8 home runs and 20 RBI through the end of June.After that, he stayed fairly healthy and hit .274 with 25 homers and a solid .588 slugging percentage from July 1 on, missing only 6 games through the final 3 months. Lightning might strike again. But there are reasons to discourage teams from taking that chance, such as…
Much younger, steadier and less injury-prone Manny Machado is having a career year with the sadsack Orioles, playing SS no less. He would be the obvious first choice for any team looking to “rent” an leftfield-side infielder, with a better bat, more versatility and seemingly more stamina than Josh D. Then there’s last place Texas, with aging future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre likely to be offered around. Although pushing 40 and having some leg problems of his own, Beltre is hitting when he’s playing (.314, 25 RBI in 48 games), still an above average defender and is generally considered a great presence in the clubhouse. He might fit in back in Boston (where he had an important season way back in 2010) Or there’s the Royals’ Mike Moustakas, not quite matching his last year’s production, but with 14 homers and 48 RBI on a squad that’s neck-and-neck with Baltimore for worst overall, he’s bound to be of interest … and is younger, healthier and making much less than Donaldson. Bottom line is Toronto would be lucky to get anyone to take Josh off their hands now. If they do manage to trade him, it’s unlikely they won’t need to take some of his salary anyway and might be lucky to get back one ordinary minor leaguer, or perhaps a run of the mill journeyman reliever in return. The other option is to hang onto him, see him wander off into free agency in the fall and get nothing in return (although his lot might not improve much in the off-season based on last year’s free agent market.)
It’s clear the team risked a lot when it came time to guess about Josh Donaldson and guess about the ’18 season. And they lost in a big way. BUT… that’s not the worst thing that could have happened. Sometimes you make choices based on your beliefs and hunches that are just wrong. I for one can forgive that, and be much more understanding of an organization that thought they were trying to turn in a winner for the fans than one that guessed they were hopeless and sold the farm . It’s a safe bet that betting on your team is a better choice than betting against it. So for that I say, well you screwed up but at least you tried, Ross Atkins. Better luck next time!